neo-pa·​gan ˌnē-ō-ˈpā-gən How to pronounce neo-pagan (audio)
: a person who practices a contemporary form of paganism (such as Wicca)
neo-pagan adjective
neo-paganism noun

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The Uses and Origins of Heathen and Pagan

Heathen is a dated term used primarily of someone who is not religious, or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity. It is also sometimes used disapprovingly of someone who is not cultured; this use is also dated.

In current use, pagan is most commonly used of someone who practices a contemporary form of paganism, such as Wicca, making the word synonymous with neo-pagan. But pagan also has meanings identical to those of heathen; in those uses it too is dated. Additionally, pagan has literary use referring to a nonreligious person who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.

The origins of heathen and pagan are semantically similar. Heathen likely comes from a term for a country inhabitant—in particular, a “heath dweller.” The Latin source of pagan, paganus, originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian;” it was used at the end of the Roman Empire to refer to people who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and especially to those who worshiped multiple deities. It’s believed that the religious meanings of paganus developed either from the enduring non-Christian religious practices of those who lived far from the Roman cities where Christianity was more quickly adopted, or from the fact that early Christians referred to themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” making nonbelievers “civilians.”

Word History

First Known Use

1868, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of neo-pagan was in 1868

Dictionary Entries Near neo-pagan

Cite this Entry

“Neo-pagan.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

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